David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Lawson Crouse brings size, grit, but the Florida Panthers’ pick lacks sizzle

No. 11 pick:  Lawson Crouse poses with his Panthers jersey.
No. 11 pick: Lawson Crouse poses with his Panthers jersey. Getty Images

The Panthers’ first-round pick hit a home run in batting practice at Marlins Park. While that makes for fun back-of-hockey-card trivia, the real question is did the Panthers hit a home run in drafting left wing Lawson Crouse?

Nah. Double down the line that turns into a triple with some speed.

That’s not a bad thing at all. Crouse stands 6-4 with a large overall frame that will fill out to “He’s a Problem.” The Hockey News Draft Preview, as respected a media publication by people inside the sport it covers as there is, ranked him as the No.8 prospect in a draft that many saw as dropping off a little after No.10. He fell to the Panthers at No.11.

But when you go into the draft looking for speed and scoring off the wing and the winger you draft says he’s a physical guy who’s good in the defensive zone and “chips in” when he can on offense … well, the sizzle suddenly fell well short of the concert roaring in BB&T Center that greeted Panthers general manager Dale Tallon coming to the stage.

Not that the Panthers should have chosen anybody else just to excite the fans, most of whom haven’t seen any prospects’ consecutive shifts but pore over scouting reports and YouTube highlights. You never make personnel moves to make fans happy. With few exceptions, like media, they make lousy coaches and general managers.

Let NHL commissioner Gary Bettman play to the masses in the darkened arena by pointing out the packed top rows and standing room areas with, “Hockey’s alive and well in South Florida!”

Hockey’s done just fine in South Florida. It’s the NHL team that has had a problem.

Not that you would know it by Friday night. The arena crackled the way it often does during an NHL Draft.

The NHL plays along these days. It drops the lighting to nightclub level. A thumbnail scouting report and a giant screen presentation of highlights accompanied by thunderous Star Wars-inspired music greet each first-round pick.

But that just adds to what makes the NHL Draft the coolest of all the pick-and-prays. Unlike the other drafts, there’s no “war rooms” strewn across the country. Everybody’s here, save players. All the prospects, their families, all the agents, all the coaches, general managers, league personnel.

That power crammed into one place creates the feel of things always moving that I often felt around the power places in Washington, D.C. Speaking of D.C., let’s hear from a draft attendee who wore a Capitals T-shirt with “Bondra No. 12” on the back.

(Just because Bondra’s the most underrated player of the 1993-2004 era.)

“I have a friend who got free tickets. I’ve never been to a pro draft of any kind,” said Brendan Ayres, a Baltimore native now in Delray Beach. “It just seemed like a good event, a big deal. I just kind of wanted to see the inner workings. We’re sitting on the lower level, we can see all the players and their families. It’s pretty neat.

“I come to games whenever the Caps are in town. You can tell there were a lot more people on the way in, just from where we parked. It kind of caught us off guard. Even though part [of the arena] is closed off, you can tell there’s more of a presence here.”

Juice flows. There’s the sweetness of the draftees hugging mom, dad, sister, girlfriend before heading for the stage. That family sometimes returns to their seats after the meeting with the media and the team to wildly clap when Draftee’s Friend gets picked. And everybody’s dressed to cut diamonds.

Fans boo their team’s rivals and Philadelphia. Boos for Colorado got iced by a scream of “Never forget!” possibly from a fan of Detroit or the Panthers.

This year’s first round turned out to be light on significant trades, although there’s still Saturday’s second day. I know I’m not the only old WHAphile who smiled when the Oilers premiered their ultra-retro early-WHA orange jersey when No.1 overall pick Connor McDavid donned it on stage.

Plantation’s Tony Knapik, clad in his retro Gilbert Perreault Buffalo jersey as his younger brother Patrick Knapik wore Alex Mogilny, said, “Next year, the draft’s in Buffalo, and I’m considering going up to that.”

Tony, a former Panthers season-ticket holder, indicated the NHL Awards trophies in glass next to him: “You look at all these, the NHL trophies I grew up with dreaming, freezing my backyard in Buffalo, these are the things you dream of carrying around along with the Stanley Cup [which was also available for photos]. The NHL makes it really special for everybody.”

You go to the NHL Draft on the first day, you’re a hockey fan. You go on the second day, you’re a puckhead.

And we say that with a smile.

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